Flannery O'Connor: Her Vision
by F. Thomas Trotter
A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This lecture was presented at San Antonio Gardens, Claremont, California, on December 15, 2009. Used by permission of the author.
Flannery O’Connor was a story-teller of remarkable power. She was part of the tradition of “southern gothic” writers like Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner. They found richness in the cultural traditions of the South, its people, its religion, and its humanness. Many of their characters were strange. O’Connor writes, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
Flannery had achieved early recognition as a writer. She suffered in her adult years with lupus, an anti-immune disease that ultimately took her life at the early age of 37. She wrote two novels but her short stories have survived as her principle works.
A Roman Catholic, Flannery’s vision was of a world deeply infused with grace. In a response to another Catholic writer, Mary McCarthy, who declared that the sacrament of Holy Communion was only a “symbol,” Flannery remarked “If it is only a symbol, then to hell with it.” We live in a post-Christian world and so some of us no longer understand the language of religious belief. Grace is the “unmerited favor of God.” For traditional belief, the sacrament is a “means of grace,” not merely a symbol but a powerful reality. That was why Flannery took exception to McCarthy’s rationalism.
She was influenced by the famous Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who was a popular figure in the mid 20th century. Chardin sought to bring together the world of nature and the world of faith. He postulated an “Omega Point” toward which all nature and mystery ultimately converge in understanding. Omega, of course, is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and for Chardin the final unity of nature and grace. So the title of one of her stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” is an allusion to Chardin.
Her literary purpose was to probe the intersections of nature and grace. In a collection of her writings, she refers to this as the struggle between “mystery and manners.” She saw modern Catholic experience as Manichaean---the dividing of human experience into areas of absolute good and absolute evil. That divides human experience into either sentimentalism or obscenity. For her this division is overcome by awareness of the mystery of grace. The reality of the love of God keeps us from sliding into sentimentalism on the one hand or obscene behavior on the other.
The setting of her stories is a world from which human beings have generally eliminated mystery (grace) and only discover the power of that reality in sudden, startling, and unexpected ways. Half of her characters are hopelessly sentimental and half are obscene lunatics. Neither is aware of the presence of grace in the world.
This is not a totally new idea for Flannery. Other writers have alerted us. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” (Proverbs 29). Her “omega” point is the Christian idea of “grace.”
In “Mystery and Manners,” she borrows a medieval term for interpretation of literature. It is the word anagogical—which means pointing to mystery, pointing to the Divine life and our participation in it. Her works are not allegorical (one fact points to another) or moral (what should be done). Flannery’s works are anagogical and that is what makes here so frustrating to some and so fascinating to others.
She writes, “Writers will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable….To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” O’Connor had a savage wit and her stories are sometimes hard to take.
But there is a moment in her stories when the presence of grace can be recognized. But it is usually too late. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a character named “Misfit” shoots the family grandmother even as she is asserting his basic goodness as a human being. Her sentimental view of the nature of evil is inadequate as she discovers too late. A case of sentimentalism versus the obscene.
Asbury in “The Enduring Chill” returns home from New York convinced he is dying. He had known an intellectual Jesuit priest in New York so he tells his mother to get him a priest. Asbury wanted to talk about St Augustine and St Thomas. However a country priest tells him simply and gruffly to say his prayers. A country doctor finally diagnoses his illness as undulant fever which he contacted while drinking un-pasteurized milk with two black farmhands in a mock sacrament to anger his mother. The “enduring chill” is a vision of the descent of the Holy Ghost on him as he realizes he will have to live on and not be a martyr to all the ignorance surrounding him. Overwhelmed by sentimentality, Asbury realizes that martyrdom is going to be denied and he must come to terms with mystery.
“Greenleaf” is the story of a wealthy widowed farm-woman. Her tenant farmer is Mr. Greenleaf. She is bitter about him because she considers him poor white trash and finds numerous ways of projecting her own superiority when speaking of him. She and he each have two sons. But her sons are shiftless and un-promising. His, however, are college graduates. Her bitterness becomes focused on a bull that strays into her pasture and won’t leave. After unsuccessful requests to Mr. Greenleaf to remove the animal, she goes after the bull herself and is attacked and killed. The sentimental vs. the obscene.
“The Lame Shall Enter First” is a story about a social worker who is driven to rescue a delinquent boy by taking him into his home and concentrating all his energies on the task. The boy is unredeemable and creates terrible havoc in the home. The ending of the story is the social worker’s frightening discovery that his own son has committed suicide because of his father’s neglect of him. The sentimental vs. the obscene.
There are other stories in the collection. But I want to tell you about my favorite. It is “Revelation.” It has a remarkable touch of humor as well as the O’Connor sense of the contradictions between manners and mystery.
The leading character is Mrs. Turpin who is a good woman, a church worker, a friend of the poor and homeless, and a good wife to her husband, Claud. Her problem is not her goodness, but her habit of boasting about it. She is proud that she was born white and not black or white trash. She is grateful that she and Claud, while not rich, have a little of everything and the wit to use it wisely. She is cheerful about discussing these benefits with strangers.
One day she takes Claud to the doctor’s office to have a minor infection on his leg treated. While waiting to see the doctor, she engages in a long soliloquy about her virtues and sighs about how difficult it is to be such a fine person in a world of the less fortunate. Sitting across from her is a young girl home for the holidays from Wellesley. As Mrs. Turpin continues her personal story the girl becomes irritated, scowling at her. Finally, angry at Mrs. Turpin’s continuous self-congratulation, the girl hurls the book she was reading at Mrs. Turpin. (The title of the book is “Human Development.”) The book hits her right in the eye and the girl shouts at her. “You are a wart-hog! You are a wart-hog from Hell!”
Mrs. Turpin’s world crumbles. She is taken home and treated for bruises but that is not what hurts. Later she goes out to the pig-pen on the farm and looks at the sky and shouts, “I am not a wart-hog! There will always be a top and a bottom.” Drawing herself up to full fury, she makes a fist to the sky and bellows, “You can’t do this to me!” This is the ultimate gesture of a good person who feels double-crossed by God.
When her anger subsides, she sees the pigs pulsing with life and the late afternoon sky beautiful in reds and yellows and she experiences a kind of peace. Then, in the sky, she sees a long procession of people climbing into heaven. Now read Flannery’s own words:
“A vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they always had been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
This is a paraphrase of Matthew 24, Jesus’ parable about who will enter the kingdom.
Flannery told stories that catch us off-balance and require us to acknowledge some insight that normally escapes us in our manners, habits, self-centeredness. Most of her heroes discover mystery at the moment of their death. A few, like Mrs. Turpin, find themselves in the moment of revelation. Flannery wrote with a keen eye for the natural world and the ways that grace waits to pounce on her characters unexpectedly. To the reader who is drawn into her own religious vision, she has prophetic and graceful authority. Her focus on repugnant distortions is to call attention to distortions to an audience that has come to see them as natural. In a world where the definitions of love and truth and justice are frequently either sentimental or obscene, Flannery suggests we take a long look at our ultimate view of the world, a view that may just save us from ourselves. For her that is grace, the persistence of the love of God.